Bereft by Chris Womersley
It is 1919. The Great War has ended, but the Spanish flu epidemic is raging across Australia. Schools are closed, state borders are guarded by armed men, and train travel is severely restricted. There are rumours it is the end of the world.
In the NSW town of Flint, Quinn Walker returns to the home he fled ten years earlier when he was accused of an unspeakable crime. Aware that his father and uncle would surely hang him, Quinn hides in the hills surrounding Flint. There, he meets the orphan Sadie Fox — a mysterious young girl who seems to know more about the crime than she should.
Bereft is a novel I’ve been desperate to read ever since I heard about it, especially after it was nominated for countless awards in Womersley’s native Australia. Some would call it a crime novel, others would call it a piece of contemplative literary fiction. For me, I think it’s definitely a mixture of the two.
The story follows Quinn Walker as he returns from The Great War, to his hometown in Australia. The only thing is, Quinn fled this place ten years earlier when he was accused of murdering his sister, and hasn’t returned since. He knows he is not welcome and that his Uncle would hang him at first sight, but at the same time, he knows he has to return – whether it is to make peace with himself, or with his sister. Then suddenly, Quinn meets the mysterious orphaned girl, Sadie Fox, who seems to know much more than you would ever believe possible.
There is no doubt that Chris Womersley is a wonderful writer. His prose is both beautiful and fluid, and you can tell that a great deal of emotion went into the creation of his protagonist Quinn. But for reasons I can’t quite put my finger on, I just didn’t love Bereft as much as I wanted to. In fact, I did initially give it a rating of four out of five, but later found it failed to leave much of a lasting impression on me and so decided to change my rating. Don’t get me wrong, it’s a great read, and a well-written one, with both intriguing characters and setting, but it wasn’t quite gripping enough for me. Ultimately, I found I was working out the plot a lot earlier than I wanted to, and found the story lacking in twists and revelations. I wanted the intrigue of the first seventy pages or so, to continue on to the rest of the novel, but the approaching ending soon became inevitable.
What is interesting about Bereft is the character of Sadie. I always found I was constantly guessing whether she was actually real or not, and there seemed to be many allusions to her behaviour being very similar to that of Quinn’s dead sister. I found her to be cleverly written, and the character that really drives the story forward. Sadie’s relationship with Quinn is often a strange one, but most definitely innocent. You can’t help but for feel for these two people who now only have each other. As Quinn recounts his memories from the war, it’s easy to see what a fairly sad existence he’s lead, with the murder of his sister hanging heavy on his shoulders. But for me, where the story meandered a little too far was when Quinn was describing his experiences at a séance in Victorian London. I felt that Womersley had done such a beautiful job in setting the scene of rural, rustic Australia, and then to be transported to London on the same page, almost jarred for me. I know other readers have liked the inclusion of it, so this is only my personal preference. I just don’t think the story needed it.
I’m going to keep this review fairly short, so what I will say is Bereft has been getting some seriously great reviews, and even though I may not have fallen in love with it, I certainly thought it was well worth the read, and would make a particularly great choice for book clubs. I should also say that whilst I was reading it, I could definitely picture it as a film in my mind, so it would be very interesting to see if that comes about!
Bereft is a beautifully written, intriguing story and one that you are unlikely to have read anything similar to before. This is a novel that has marked Womersley as an author to watch and I am definitely looking forward to seeing what he will be writing next!
Bereft is out now, published by Quercus. A huge thank you goes to the publisher for providing me with a copy for review.